BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Peter Stark isn't wasting any time as chairman of the dance department of the Patel Conservatory in Tampa. After just a few weeks on the job, he announced that the school is starting a ballet company.
"We're going to call it the Next Generation Ballet, and we're modeling it on the New World Symphony,'' Stark said, referring to the preprofessional orchestra in Miami Beach that is led by Michael Tilson Thomas. "The model is that they'll be young performers producing a high-quality product.''
Stark, 43, came from Orlando Ballet School, where he was director since 2000. He's a former dancer with New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, Washington Ballet and Washington Opera.
He envisions a company that will have eight apprentices 16 to 20 years old and as many as 16 trainees ages 14 to 18, supplemented by guest artists, in its first year. The apprentices would receive scholarships to the school and performance stipends.
"It will be a youth company, but I'm really steering away from that,'' Stark said. "The reality is, all of ballet is a youth ballet. I started my career with New York City Ballet at 17 and retired at 30. Many dancers make it to 35 or 40, but that's still very young. So if we're looking at 16- to 20-year-olds, yes, they're young, but they are actually at a point where they would be entering the field. What we're giving them is training and work experience.''
As part of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, the Patel brings some major assets to the challenging business of ballet. The Tampa Bay area had at least two professional ballet companies — the Tampa Ballet, which decamped to Colorado; and Bay Ballet Theater, which folded — but dance hasn't found a large enough audience to support top-flight productions.
"The Tampa Bay area has tried to start ballet companies, and we've brought in ballet companies like Washington Ballet and Orlando Ballet, but I think this approach has a lot of potential,'' said Judy Lisi, president of the Straz. "It's a new kind of company that will emerge from the conservatory.''
Lisi said the Straz's big financial commitment "will be toward the quality of the productions. That's where the money will go. We intend for them to be fully loaded.''
On Saturday, Stark will hold auditions for his staging of The Nutcracker in the Straz Center's Morsani Hall Dec. 22 and 23. It will feature guest artists from New York City Ballet and Boston Ballet, with set and costumes from Omaha Theater Ballet. The company has a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream on May 14. Dancers will also perform in Opera Tampa's The Merry Widow Nov. 12-14.
Of course, Next Generation Ballet is far from the only school-based troupe in the bay area, which has a healthy complement of dance studios and companies that seek to cultivate top-level performers and put on ambitious productions. The Brandon Ballet and America's Ballet School in New Tampa also have Nutcracker auditions on Saturday.
Wendy Leigh, vice president of education at the Straz Center, said the Patel ballet program will have 250 students this school year. She acknowledged that dance teachers are protective of their turf and could feel threatened by such a large institution as the performing arts center.
"People kind of pick where they want to go,'' Leigh said. "There are people who just want to stay in Westchase or New Tampa, and they don't want to make the drive downtown. Ultimately, they'll go where their child will get the best training.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.